Amid the multitude of World War II horrors, few tug at mankind’s conscience like the voyages of refugee boats whose passengers died fleeing war, mass murder and genocide: the schooner Mefkure, sunk in 1944 on the Black Sea, taking over 300 lives, or the Struma, with almost 800 fatalities in those same waters two years earlier.
Then there was the notorious St. Louis, which in 1939 left Hamburg for Havana, with more than 900 German refugees aboard. They were forced back to Europe after Cuba, the United States and Canada all balked at letting them land. We now know hundreds of those returnees perished in the war.
Yet those tragedies pale in comparison with what is happening today. In 2014 more migrants have died traveling — nearly 5,000 — than there were passengers and crew on those three voyages.
Migrants can die by the hundreds, most recently in September, when as many as 500 lives were lost off the coast of Malta. But they also die by the tens and dozens, almost daily, disappearing into the waters of the Mediterranean and Red Seas, the Caribbean, the Gulf of Aden and the Bay of Bengal.
Our group, the International Organization for Migration, has data showing that 2014 will be the deadliest year for migrants on record. Our final figures, to be published later this month, will more than double the 2,378 deaths we reported last year. In the Mediterranean alone this year, some 3,400 migrant men, women and children have drowned — a fivefold increase over 2013. Altogether, the number of migrant deaths in 2014 on land and at sea stands at 4,868.
Will 2015 be even worse? It well could be, unless we commit to making changes in how we view migration — and how we manage it.
First, let’s take stock. Migration is not a catastrophe, nor is it an invasion. Often, it isn’t even an emergency. It is, as throughout history, an inevitability. People move to improve their lives, whether that means access to a better food supply or simply a better chance of surviving conflict. The International Organization for Migration calculates that at least 232 million people now live outside the borders of their homelands. Yet only a fraction of that population is fleeing distress, what we consider “desperation” migration.
Second, we must acknowledge the many factors behind the migration surge. Demography is the biggest. For the most part, migration is a byproduct of the quadrupling of the human population over a single century, an unprecedented event in the life of our species.
Rising global consumption means rising international labor demand, which offers citizens of poor countries the prospect of rising family incomes. That spurs reunification migration for many families or, in cases of individuals, yearnings from youths looking abroad for new careers, better education or simply a Facebook account to connect with peers who’ve already migrated to new lives.
That’s part of another “pull” factor: communication. Advances in technology do not only spread news of opportunities faster than ever before around the globe. They also speed cash to those entrepreneurs, legal and otherwise, who move migrants and put those new opportunities within reach.
That leads to the third task before us: rediscovering our compassion. Sadly, mass migration has led to a cruel irony: the rise of unprecedented anti-migrant sentiment worldwide. Certainly countries have a right, indeed an obligation, to control their borders. And, yes, economic downturns make migrants easy scapegoats for unemployment or depressed wages. Throw in post-9/11 security concerns, and it’s not difficult to understand why indifference to migrants’ hardships has led to hostility, fear and resistance to their arrival.
But that’s merely an explanation — and one that we no longer can accept.
Increasingly, we see that policies that criminalize migration invite lethal consequences. Migrants unable to find safe, legal means of travel will turn to some of the planet’s most vicious criminal gangs for relief, which often leads to recklessness, even murder.
At Lampedusa, Italy, last year I watched as 366 corpses were prepared for burial, victims of unscrupulous criminals in Libya who were willing to stuff migrants into unsafe vessels bound for Europe. A year later the tragedy has only worsened, with more horrific incidents of drowning. Often the passengers themselves realize how unsafe the crafts are and refuse to board. Often they are battered into submission, tortured and then forced out to sea.
At the International Organization for Migration we have heard of nearly identical crimes taking place off the coasts of Bangladesh and Thailand, and recently have chronicled the rising tide of death on routes connecting the Horn of Africa with the Arabian Peninsula.
History reminds us that closing our hearts to the misfortunes of others is a recipe for disaster. Sadly that is what’s happening in many parts of the world, with avoidable and tragic consequences for migrants seeking safety.
William Lacy Swing is the director general of the International Organization for Migration.